A DANCER'S TRAINING AND THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE
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Many dancers employ osteopaths, physiotherapists and masseurs to help them keep on top of the stresses and strains that often seem their lot. This state of affairs poses useful questions: is there a preventative way that can help forestall some of these problems and apart from accidents, why do dancers develop such stresses and strains?
The Alexander Technique offers a new look at the ways in which dancers use themselves both in their everyday lives and in their dancing technique, and whilst this can be done at any stage in a dancer's career, obviously the earlier the better. For maximum benefits, this way of approaching the study of movement needs to be an integral part of a dancer's training, the way a dancer thinks about his or her dancing technique, and, equally important, everyday life. Maladaptive habits of muscular use operate as a constant factor, and don't cease the moment a dancer steps on stage.
Posturaly, dancers seem to alternate between two extremes of being - what often can seem a rather rigid, 'held' or 'lifted' posture and a slump or collapse. A poise that is common both to an acceptable dancing posture and to an everyday way of going about seems rather rare and as an Alexander teacher I speculate on why this may be so and suggest that such a model of poise might be an alternative to both extremes.
In a paper entitled 'The Attainment of Poise' Professor Raymond Dart (a distinguished anatomist and pioneer in physical anthropology who studied Alexander Technique), has some interesting reflections on poise: "About poise…there is nothing fixed"…"the momentary halt in which the muscular forces concerned are in a state of equilibrium" ... " Poise is a character of repose or rest in the good body whether it is in the relatively static positions of lying, sitting or standing, or is actually in progressive motion during the activities of life's daily routine or of sport"... (or, one might add, of dancing).
The Alexander Technique offers a means of achieving this ideal of "poise" and is about re-educating and refining kinaesthetic awareness (the 'feedback' we get from receptors in joints and muscles) by being made aware of and observing personal movement habits, not necessarily in a dance context. The particular understanding that the Alexander work offers relates to Alexander's discovery of a dynamic balance in the muscular reflexes between the head neck and back, which in turn facilitate lengthening and widening responses throughout the torso and with which, in various ways, we interfere. An Alexander teacher helps a student to become aware, of and inhibit these habitual interferences thus helping the student to develop a detailed consciousness of an alternative 'personal organisation' of muscular usage.
In its integration of thought and movement in a particular sequence of mental "re-programming", or "Directing" (to use an Alexander jargon word), Alexander Technique involves the whole self and was sometimes referred to by its originator (F. Mathias Alexander 1869-1955) as "psycho-physical re-education". It is process-orientated rather than goal-orientated, and this necessitates a major shift in thinking, which in our rather frantic goal-orientated society is not easy. We need to pay attention to the means we are employing to gain particular goals or ends and whether the means is appropriate for the whole person.
For example, the postural dance-ideal of verticality or extreme uprightness (the goal) that is often referred to as "pulling up", can involve a lot of conflicting muscular effort. In class one hears many instructions which emphasize position: - "pull up your abdominals", "hold your head up, tuck your tail under" etc and these notions of holding positions are often subsequently at variance with the movement requirements of ease, flexibility and lightness. Given the alternative understanding the Alexander Technique offers, a similar placement could be arrived at by a subtly different means. This would involve allowing muscles to lengthen in order to provide a less effortful support-mechanism in response to gravity, and would also involve a re-interpretation of traditional technique-thinking along new (Alexander) lines.
In The Alexander Principle (Gollancz 1973), Dr. Wilfred Barlow suggests that "muscular hypertension is the residual tension and postural deformity which remains after stress-activity - or any activity which leaves behind residual muscle tension. Such residual tension should, ideally, be resolved by returning to a balanced resting state; but usually it is only partially relaxed, without the dystonic pattern being resolved. In the latter case the tension remains latent in an un-balanced resting state, so that it may only require the idea of moving to re-activate the muscular hypertension,"
Recent research by Dr. David Garlick (Senior lecturer, School of Physiology University of New South Wales, and a physiologist with practical experience of Alexander technique) has clarified our understanding of muscular usage and the functions of the different types (red and white) of muscle-fibre in postural support mechanisms.
Surface musculature which has evolved to articulate limbs in space may, if excessively held, prevent the activating of the deeper more structurely-supportive muscles and red muscle-fibre. If muscles are used inappropriately in postural support, a functional change in the red fibres of the extensor, anti-gravity muscles may mean that as far as every-day life is concerned, people feel a need to lean, loll, prop themselves up, put all their weight on one hip etc., and less able to sit and stand in a way that is both balanced and unsupported.
Over-use of the non-supportive musculature can build up residual muscle tension of which the dancer is unaware, and hence is unable to release properly once strenuous activity has ceased. Working with the Alexander Technique on improving the reliability of the kinaesthetic perceptual system can help with this problem so that it is possible to return quickly and more frequently to a balanced resting state that is neither a slump nor a collapse, (which would exacerbate the problem), - but a state of 'poise'.
Dance training is perhaps by its nature and tradition, rather regimented, but work with a skilled Alexander teacher can encourage students to develop a reliable individual standard of "use" both in their dance work and every-day life...a process which employs new thought processes to enhance a sense of poise that eliminates conflicting muscular effort.
Alexander work can also develop clarity of thinking in directing movement sequences, less stereotyping of habit patterns, and a greatly increased sense of responsibility for dancers' own individual well-being. Ultimately, the responsibility for changing thought-pattems lies with the individual. Students begin to see for themselves that, for example, some of the leg-bracing, knee-tightening habits currently employed in various dance-procedures are not only inappropriate in everyday life, but contribute to maintaining a state of tenseness which prevents quick recuperation of energies.
At the Midlands Academy of Dance and Drama in Nottingham, I have been working with a group of young dancers at the start of their professional training and have been seeking to develop ways in which I can make the benefits of the Alexander Technique accessible to them. This has caused me to think hard about the fundamentals of the Alexander Technique, the nature of their dance-training and the problems posed by it.
The major Music and Drama Colleges have for some time now recognized and valued the benefits of the Alexander Technique: (a) in terms of releasing potential where this has been blocked by habits of counterproductive muscular effort, (b) as a preventative measure to forestall the sort of physical problems that (for example) orchestral players develop in long hours of playing in rehearsals and concerts, and (c) in the efficient study and preparation of music for performance. All these categories could be applicable to Dance training. In most of our top Music and Drama institutions, instruction in the Alexander Technique is made available as a foundation subject to all students and I suggest that the same innovative approach might be adopted by the Dance-training establishments with re-vitalising effect to the profession.
Brief Biographical details:
Studied music and trained as a pianist at the Royal Manchester College of Music, (1956-60) but didn't begin having Alexander Technique lessons until 1974. Later,(1978-80) whilst training to be a teacher of the Alexander Technique in London, worked as an accompanist for the Laban Dance Centre,Junior Dept of Ballet Rainbert and for Natasha Lisakova. Now lives in Nottingham where he teaches Alexander Technique at the Midlands Academy of Dance and Drama, and teaches privately both the Alexander Technique and piano. Articles in Music Teacher, Music in Education, The Alexander Journal.
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